As violence eases, tourism seen in Colombia as key to conservation


Poor, arid and teeming for decades with guerrilla fighters, the Colombian department of La Guajira hasn’t been a top vacation spot. Few understand why better than Carlo Egurrola.

When Egurrola was younger, his parents were kidnapped by armed rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist guerilla group that has waged a nonstop war with the Colombian government since 1964.

The FARC and right-wing paramilitaries opposing it once had a strong presence in La Guajira. Certain parts of the department were considered off-limits to residents, let alone tourists. But in recent years, as the conflict has de-escalated, La Guajira has begun to open up. Though a recent peace agreement was narrowly defeated in a national plebiscite, violence here has been decreasing for several years, and both the FARC and the government remain committed to reaching a deal.

Less than a decade after his parents were kidnapped, Egurrola, now in his late 20s and an employee at the La Guajira tourism office, promotes tours in the same spots once frequented by guerrillas. “The guerrillas still cause some problems, but it’s different,” Egurrola says. “People are beginning to come here more.”

La Guajira isn’t the only place experiencing tourism growth after decades of war. All of Colombia has seen a surge of foreign visitors as kidnapping and violence have decreased. It’s no wonder why, particularly in the case of ecotourists. By certain measures, Colombia is the most biodiverse country on earth, with more birds and amphibians than any other country on the planet. It has coasts on two oceans and contains a portion of the Amazon rainforest as well as a vast variety of other ecosystems in settings ranging from high Andean peaks to the La Guajira desert on the Caribbean coast.

For decades the only thing holding Colombia back from being an ecotourism giant was its violent reputation. Even birders, some of the most intrepid of ecotourists, avoided Colombia for fear of being kidnapped or crossing paths with drug traffickers. But with the country’s most prominent armed conflict winding down, many expect Colombia’s popularity as a tourism destination to soar.

The projected tourism increase has major implications for conservation in Colombia. Ecotourism proponents contend that an influx of visitors could prompt policies to ensure conservation of undeveloped areas, in part through the creation of new national parks and reserves. Yet others want undeveloped areas opened up for extractive industries such as mining, asserting that this would pack a greater economic punch. All agree that decisions made on these matters now, as Colombia attempts to forge a definitive peace, will forever influence the country’s land and people.

Riohacha, the capital of La Guajira department, illustrates both the challenges and the potential. The Caribbean coastal city is clearly betting on tourism, with new beachside bars thumping music nightly and its skyline studded with several high-rise hotels under construction. Home to the department’s biggest airport, Riohacha is the easiest entry point for tourists hoping to explore highly prized natural areas in La Guajira including La Tayrona National Park or the remote beaches of Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas.

Yet for many, the city’s tourism strategy appears out of step with goal of tapping La Guajira’s natural assets in an environmentally aware way. “They are going headlong into trying to become Miami Beach,” says Stanley Bolton a Peace Corps volunteer based in the nearby coastal town of Dibulla. “They have an opportunity to be a great destination, but they think the future is in shopping centers.”

Bolton, who specializes in community development, is a Peace Corps “response volunteer,” which means he is in the country to provide short-term, high-impact help—in his case to assist community tourism development over a period of five months. He feels the challenge is not to expand tourism in the area; that, he says, is happening on its own. Instead, Bolton argues that the key is fostering types of tourism that are beneficial both to the community and to the environment.

Dibulla would seem to be an ideal proving ground. Less than a decade ago, Dibulla was a hotbed for armed conflict and drug trafficking. FARC rebels and the right-wing paramilitary groups fighting them grew marijuana and cocaine in the mountains and subjected residents to recurring rounds of violence as they clashed to expand their territory. Dibulla now is peaceful, but still bears scars. There is almost no development, and fishing, once the most reliable source of work, has declined due to pollution and depletion of fishing stocks.

The areas surrounding Dibulla are already seeing growth in resort-style tourism. With peace on the horizon and more tourists expected to come, Bolton saw an opportunity to offer a more sustainable alternative to travelers, and, in cooperation with the municipality, developed and gave a course aimed at training ecotourism guides. “Our expectation is that tourism will increase, and we want the local business owner to be prepared,” he says.

Bolton persuaded three disparate groups comprising several dozen people in all to sign up for the course and create tours that play to their respective strengths.

A group of fishermen, aware that their profession was no longer economically or environmentally sustainable, plan to launch a crocodile tour, using their fishing boats to guide tourists through local estuaries. A second group, consisting of residents of the nearby community of Santa Rita de Sierra Nevada, will lead hikes through foothills of the renowned Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, offering lunch at a local home. The community is in dire need of such work; it consists in large part of people displaced from other parts of the country by armed conflict.

The third group Bolton persuaded to take the class were members of the indigenous Wiwa, one of several indigenous peoples in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region. The Wiwa live along the Río Jerez, which rises in the mountains and empties into the Caribbean at Dibulla. They suffered greatly during the civil war, and remain deeply distrustful of outsiders.

“The first question was, what is tourism?” Bolton says, describing the start of the classes he held for the Wiwa. “It took some convincing that we were only trying to bring a certain kind of person into their community, the right kind of tourist.”

Bolton managed to get an introduction and convinced the leader of one Wiwa community that tourism would allow his people to make money while preserving their land and culture. Tourists who participate will hear Wiwa legends and learn how the community lives in harmony with nature. Wiwa leaders moved quickly from skepticism to excitement. “We want people who appreciate nature and want to share with us,” says Ramón Calvo, the leader of Nukimaka, the Wiwa community now preparing to host tourists.

Just an hour east by highway from the Riohacha city lights, the 7,000-hectare (17,000-acre) Los Flamencos Wildlife Sanctuary is becoming one of La Guajira’s main ecotourism attractions. Though named for its thriving colony of American flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) that roost in its coastal lagoon, Los Flamencos is home to many species of waterbirds, including four endemic to La Guajira.

On an August afternoon, tour guides help French tourists into wide canoes in the lagoon. The boats’ nylon sails flutter in La Guajira’s strong winds as young boys from the village ease the canoes into the water. As the sails pull the canoes through the lagoon, one of the guides, 21-year-old Angél Ipuana, rattles off the English names of the birds the boats pass along the way.

Ipuana is one of a group of 17 guides from the indigenous Wayúu village of Camerones, which sits within the sanctuary. Like most others in the village, he grew up fishing in the lagoon, but in recent years fish populations have been dwindling. When the opportunity arose last year to take a tour-guiding class, this one offered by USAID, Ipuana jumped at the chance. Says Ipuana, who charges $40 a person for the hour-long tour: “This is another way for us to make money. We’ve seen a big increase in the numbers of foreigners showing up.”

The decline in violence, he says, has prompted the influx. The French tourists, a friends that each year travel abroad together, agreed. La Guajira was their last stop on a countrywide tour that had also taken them south to Colombia’s Amazon region, then on to the tourist hubs of Cartagena and Medellín. “Colombia used to have this reputation for drugs and violence,” said Paris resident Marc Vonviziere, 70, one of the travelers. “Now people talk about it as a unique place to visit. People are learning it is a great destination for the environment.”

Many areas once off-limits due to violence are making their way back onto tourists’ itineraries. Among them are the Colombian Amazon and its rich array of wildlife; the country’s Pacific Coast region, famous for whale and sea-turtle watching; and Caño Cristales, a multicolored river in central Colombia that often is described as among the most beautiful in the world. Remote and rugged, such destinations attract outdoors enthusiasts, and environmentalists hope that demand from this clientele will promote public and private conservation initiatives in Colombia.

“Ecotourism is a tool for conservation,” says John Myers, Latin America director for the National Audubon Society. “By there being this actual market of people that like to see birds and like to have the experience of everything that goes along with that, [this] is what gets us to the table with the governments and the businesses because they see that as a development opportunity.”

For Myers and the Audubon Society, Colombia represents a crucial test case. Though the country is the world’s richest in bird species, with 1,900, it lags in birding-tourism capability. Until recently, Colombia had only a handful of qualified birding guides and tour groups, Myers says, adding: “It is the country with the most birds, but it doesn’t have the infrastructure or capacity that is necessary.”

Once this changes, though, the growth in this small sector of tourism could be dramatic. A study released in September by Audubon and the Conservation Strategy Fund found Audubon members would be willing to pay an average of US$310 per day for a birding tour in Colombia, $60 higher than the average price of a similar tour in Costa Rica, currently a major birding hotspot. Based on survey results, the study estimated such tours have the potential in the next ten years to generate US$9 million annually and create 7,500 new jobs nationwide. Though Los Flamencos was not the focus of violence, Colombia’s scary reputation discouraged tourism from taking root there. With help from Audubon, Los Flamencos is moving beyond boat tours to realize its potential as a destination for birders. Along with four other birding hot spots, it forms part of the Northern Colombian Birding Trail, an 11-day trip designed by Audubon.

The project comes with funding from USAID, which is supporting ecotourism in the area to help preserve La Guajira’s tropical dry forest, among the most endangered biomes in the world. As it stands, Colombia retains just 8% of its once-plentiful tropical dry forest. Of that, under 1% is in the national park system. Nearly $300,000 invested in training for guides and infrastructure is intended to boost birding tourism, local economic growth and, ultimately, government interest in land conservation.

Last year Audubon began preparing for more birders by training 44 new guides, many of them indigenous Wayúu, and building cabins in Los Flamencos. All 44 guides are now fully booked for the coming January-to-June high season, organizers say. The popularity of the program has spurred Audubon to expand its birding routes throughout Colombia, in hopes of spurring conservation and economic benefit throughout the country. While Audubon’s program is perhaps the most developed of its kind in Colombia, it points to a larger vision for Colombian wildlands. Myers and others describe this as a “Costa Rica model,” one based on conservation and tourism rather than resource extraction.

Most immediately important, however, is achieving a permanent peace. The government forecasts that if this can be done, tourism will increase by 30% by 2018, creating 300,000 jobs. According to President Juan Manuel Santos, these jobs can be occupied not only by ordinary Colombian citizens, but also by thousands of demobilized rebels that will be unemployed if they disarm.

Because the peace accords were defeated in the plebiscite, disarmament of the FARC no longer seems imminent, but violence continues to decline and many believe tourism will continue to grow even without an official accord. Analysts believe the result will be a moment of truth of sorts for Colombia.

Says Myers: “It is a critical time where the country is going to decide to pursue a conservation model or just go crazy and decide to exploit every resource that they have.”

- Lindsay Fendt

Stanley Bolton
Peace Corps Volunteer
Dibulla, Colombia
Tel: +(57 311) 574-5358
John Myers
Latin America Director
National Audubon Society
Washington, D.C., United States
Tel: (212) 979-3000